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Garrison Keillor’s ‘Prairie Home Companion’: Gospel of the Airwaves

by Doug Thorpe

Mr. Thorpe is a doctoral candidate at the University if Washington, Seattle. This article appeared in the Christian Century July 211-28, 1982, p.793. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It has been decreed in my neighborhood that every week all serious work ends at 3:00 on Saturday afternoon, when Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” comes on the air. There might be laundry to do or dishes to wash; a letter to write or bills to pay; or perhaps simply a book or magazine to peruse, with a glass of sherry or a beer at hand -- but that is all peripheral. The radio is what matters. It is turned on, and we’re comfortably settled on the couch listening to a news wrap-up or the end of a pledging drive. Then after a station identification and a few moments of silence, somewhere in St. Paul, Minnesota, Butch Thompson picks out single, carefully spaced notes on the piano, and a deep, friendly voice begins to sing:

Well, look who’s coming through that
†††† door,
I think we’ve met somewhere before –
†††† Hello Love. . .

 

There is a special intimacy about radio. It is a companion for one’s quietude, whether one is at home on a Saturday afternoon or alone on the freeway late at night. We are vulnerable with radio in a way that is impossible with television -- TV is somehow too public, too visual; our defenses rise too easily against it. But radio at its best comforts as well as entertains. And, like the ideal weekend guest, it makes few demands. It allows the mind to wander, explore, go for long walks alone. You can close your eyes and not miss a thing.

More than television, radio is a marker of time for us. It fixes time, and not just in the announcement of the hour or half hour, or simply in our awareness that it’s 3:00 in Seattle when “Prairie Home Companion” comes on or 6:30 when “All Things Considered” is over. It fixes voices, which are our own past. I think of a broadcast by FDR on December 7, 1941, or of the crash of the Hindenburg, reported to a startled nation by an announcer who broke into tears. Similarly, Garrison Keillor (“Companion” host, writing in the liner notes to the anniversary record album) comments that his own earliest memory of radio, from his childhood in Anoka, Minnesota, is “sitting on my uncle’s lap, his arm around me, my head next to his, as a tiny band played, and a man in New York said it was true, the war was over.”

Radio freezes these moments better than a snapshot can: every year, 1945 gets a little further away. And that receding moment, once so vividly present and still so apparently alive (in part because of radio), is just like this moment, this Saturday afternoon, with its new show, coming to us live from Minnesota, where people right now are watching the red light in the World Theater in downtown St. Paul, waiting for the moment when it all begins again.

Time means everything in live radio; time is what makes it so special. Every week you get just one chance. If you are caught in the grocery store, on the bus or the ferry, at a meeting, or at your daughter’s soccer game, and you neglected to bring your radio, they won’t hold the show for you until you get home; it comes on precisely at 3:00 and will not wait. Of course you can have a friend tape it for you, but that’s cheating -- victory is compromised. It’s not the same as being ready. The “Companion,” as Keillor says, down deep in its heart in a gospel show, and if the Bridegroom comes while you’re at the hardware store buying oil for your lamp, he’ll just start the music without you.

I have wondered at times whether it isn’t this old anticipation of the Kingdom that explains Keillor’s childhood fascination with radio (a subject he returns to frequently in his New Yorker stories, published recently by Atheneum under the title Happy to Be Here). Radio presents a child’s-eye view of the Bridegroom’s approach, and the waiting is almost as much fun as the coming itself. Keillor recalls Fibber McGee looking around his home at 79 Wistful Vista for his coat “or his ukulele or his canoe paddle,” and finally saying to Molly, “Maybe it’s here in the closet, kiddo,” and “he opened the door and out came the avalanche.” Keillor never grew tired of this routine -- he waited for it every week, knowing it would come, wanting it to come, and experiencing the fulfillment of expectation when it did. Such stellar moments from childhood were like being held in your uncle’s lap while a jazz band played somewhere 1,500 miles away. It was all mysterious and marvelous, and yet as comfortable as home and family. Perfect radio casts out fear. You could always count on it, every evening, every week. Radio was the good news.

It was from such moments (specifically from thinking about the “Grand Ole Opry”) that Keillor got the idea of doing a show of his own. As well as writing short fiction, he had been on the radio since 1960. The “Companion,” clearly, was an ideal way of combining his two loves. He didn’t have to write about radio anymore; he could be radio. So “Prairie Home Companion” was launched on Minnesota Public Radio on July 6, 1974, moving from Macalester College to successively larger theaters, finally finding a permanent home in 1978 at the 630-capacity World Theater in St. Paul.

The World Theater, as Keillor comments in his liner notes, was in 1910 a legitimate theater; it switched to movies in 1933, and in the late ‘70s it almost became a parking lot before it was saved by the “Companion.” This outcome seems appropriate: much of Keillor’s work can be seen as a rescue operation, saving memorable places from the erosion of time for as long as he can.

The “Companion” is broadcast live every Saturday, as I witnessed for myself last December. Tickets, I was surprised to learn, aren’t especially expensive or hard to come by. It’s rather like seeing the Chicago Cubs in Wrigley Field (itself a survivor from another era), where tickets for the bleachers and grandstands can always be purchased on the day of the game, even in those rare years when the Cubs are pennant- contenders. (Keillor, come to think of it, should have been born a Cubs fan, if such a person can exist in Minnesota. His heart would go out to a team that last won a pennant at the close of World War II.)

The show is broadcast at 5:00 in Minnesota. Keillor comes on stage briefly at 4:00, says hello, and the music starts informally (it’s rather like watching batting practice). At 4:45 the host returns. A music stand has been placed near the front of the stage, close to Butch Thompson’s piano -- and on the stand Keillor puts his notes and memos, and the messages the audience has written out before the show or has mailed in. These messages, as any listener knows, are not hip, coy or desperate; often funny and always honest, they suggest that someone out there wants to say hello to someone somewhere else by way of the airwaves. The messages are not simply time-fillers; they are, in miniature, the point of the show, rather like the opening song itself, with its hint of surprise, delight and easy familiarity: “I’ve missed you so since you’ve been gone, hello Love . . .”

Keillor reminds the audience that the broadcast is live, encourages audience reaction (laughter; no cue cards), and comments that since this is live radio with only one short intermission, musicians often have to set up while other musicians are performing. As you hear Stevie Beck, the queen of the auto-harp, the audience is watching the crew set up for a seven-piece marimba band or for Stoney Lonesome, the local Minneapolis bluegrass band.

Watching the show from a seat in the balcony, one rarely forgets that time determines it all -- it must all come home at 5:00 -- which is one reason I would just as soon be at home, hearing it on the radio. We need a few illusions. I don’t know what you think the World Theater, or downtown St. Paul, looks like, but my guess is that it doesn’t look anything like you think it does. Which, when it comes to radio, is just the way it should be.

Someone told me that the first time he heard the show he pulled out his Rand McNally atlas and looked up Lake Wobegon in the index, expecting to be able to drive to this small midwestern town where all the women are strong, all the men good-looking, and all the children above average. Someone else I know -- not a transplanted midwesterner -- thought Minnesota itself was fictitious, a creation of Garrison Keillor. I’m willing to go along with both of these notions. Both Keillor’s Minnesota (like his commercials for “Hotel Minnesota,” a chain found in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where all the guests bring their own fruit salad and deviled eggs) and his small hometown are real -- they do exist somewhere in the imagination. We believe in that world, recognize it. Like the narrator of the “Companion,” who was brought up in Lake Wobegon, we too left it years ago but have never completely escaped.

At their best, the stories at the heart of the show are not sentimental -- or at least not only sentimental or nostalgic. If Keillor spends ten minutes illuminating a Dandelion Wine -- style vision of small-town Minnesota on a warm summer evening (the porches, screen doors, rocking chairs, lightning bugs and baseball games called on account of darkness when the batter gets hit in the leg with the ball or the infielders start to complain about invisible grounders), he will invariably be telling us something also about the simple and terrible passing of time, those last rare minutes of daylight early on a Saturday night.

The show is not simply on the radio, like the older shows Keillor admires so much, and upon which the “Companion” is loosely modeled; it’s also about radio. And radio, for Keillor, teaches us something about the nature of time itself -- especially how quickly it all seems to go. And so the every-week celebration of birthdays is not merely a gesture; it’s a key to the center of the show. With each Saturday we mark the passing of time. Recently, at the end of the show, Keillor did a tribute to all the new 40-year-olds, those people born in March 1942, sung to a rewritten Gettysburg Address with the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the background. As so often with Keillor, it was funny, well-written, well-timed (5:00 was just around the corner) and poignant.

Death comes even to Lake Wobegon. A child falls through the ice one quiet December afternoon, and years later the father still can be found late in the evening at the Side-Track Tap studying his loss. The other men just let him be, sitting there with his memory as he tries again to make it all come right, tries to be there, miraculously, at just the right instant to pull his boy from the water.

Keillor himself turns 40 this year; he has a 12-year-old son of his own. He knows well the treachery of time: what may seem comfortably solid and frozen and safe turns out to be slick and dangerously thin. It takes only a moment. But boys and girls skate anyway.

The stories in Happy to Be Here are not Lake Wobegon stories -- fans of the radio show should be forewarned. But they will not, I think, disappoint those fans. Keillor has a keen ear for parody, and makes use of it in unlikely ways, as in the marvelous “Your Wedding and You” with its explanation of the “alternative wedding” (only Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” has caught this ‘60s and ‘70s language as accurately), and in his more recent homage to punk rock in “Don: The True Story of a Young Person.” Anyone familiar with the more intellectual forms of pop criticism (whether of music or film) will recognize it as a parody of the Rolling Stone critic -- a parody so good that, for a moment, one is almost convinced the piece is the real thing:

Actually, “punk rock,” as it is called, has brought about some useful changes in popular music, as many respected rock critics have pointed out, and its roots can be traced back to the very origins of rock itself, and perhaps even a little bit farther: “It goes without saying,” Green Phillips has written in Rip It Up: The Sound of the American Urban Experience, “that punk rock is outrageous. Outrage is its object, its raison d’Ítre, stupid, self-destructive, and a menace to society. But that does not mean we should minimize its contribution or fail to see it for what it truly is: an attempt to reject the empty posturing of the pseudo-intellectual album-oriented Rock-as-Art consciousness cult of the Post-Pepper era and to re-create the primal persona of the Rocker as Car Thief, Dropout, and Guy Who Beats Up Creeps.”

As any rock critic knows, the very notion of analyzing the stuff is a direct violation of the message of the music itself. This doesn’t, of course, stop the sort of verbal posturing that Keillor so nicely captures here. Comedian Woody Allen often goes for an easy laugh by inserting various outrageous statements into a parody, such as his takeoff on Kafka’s Journals: “Getting through the night is becoming harder and harder. Last evening, I had the uneasy feeling that some men were trying to break into my room to shampoo me. But why? I kept imagining I saw shadowy forms, and at 3 A.M. the underwear I had draped over a chair resembled the Kaiser on roller skates.” Keillor in contrast plays it very close, getting humor not only by the shifts in diction (from “primal persona” to “Guy Who Beats Up Creeps”), but also by forcing the reader to pay attention to the small details and even to the very shape of a sentence in order to catch the put-on. “Its roots can be traced to the very origins of rock itself and perhaps even a little bit farther.” That “little bit” signals the parody -- the rest of it could easily be for real. It’s close enough and yet exaggerated enough to be absurd.

The setting and subjects of many of the stories are what fans of the “Companion” might expect. Except for the political satire (a side of Keillor rarely exhibited on the radio), they are generally midwestern, and celebrate baseball, small towns, “shy rights” (“why not pretty soon?”) and, of course, radio. WLT, broadcasting “The Friendly Neighbor Show,” features Walter “Dad” Benson:

We heard the WLT chimes strike twelve, the organ play Dad’s theme (“Whispering Lilacs”) and the announcer’s voice say “and now we take you down the road aways to the home of Dad Benson, his daughter Jo, and her husband Franck, for a visit with the Friendly Neighbor, brought to you by Midland Fire and Casualty Insurance. As we join them, the family is sitting in the kitchen around the table where J0 is fixing lunch . . .”

Again, for someone raised on Ozzie and Harriet and the Beaver, this sounds pretty authentic, even while it pushes the type to its extreme. But Keillor’s affection here, and in other stories on the subject of radio, is clear. In “WLT (The Edgar Era)” he writes: “Oh the days when radio was strange and dazzling! Even the WLT performers could not quite believe it. To think that their voices flew out as far as Anoka, Still-water and Hastings!” This is not far from the voice Keillor uses in the liner notes to his record, A Prairie Home Companion Anniversary Album, where he compares his show to his memory:

On the living room floor of my boyhood, I stretched out and heard those old shows for all they were worth. It’s seldom I feel that ours matches up, though perhaps if I were eight and listened to this show with by brothers and sisters stretched out beside me, knowing that I had to go to bed ‘when it was over, I’d like it more.

I suspect that not many of Keillor’s listeners are eight years old; yet this knowledge of bedtime approaching lingers in all of us. Time for listening to the show is time taken out. Responsibilities are at an end for two hours; it’s like the Sunday afternoons of our childhood. And much of the beauty in such an experience, as Keats told us long ago (and as Horace told us long before Keats), lies in our knowledge of its transience. Five o’clock is always nigh.

This may be why my favorite stories in Happy to Be Here, and the two that seem closest to the spirit of certain features of Lake Wobegon -- “Powder Milk Biscuits,” “The Chatterbox Cafe,” and “Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility” -- have little to do with radio. They are the last two stories in the book. The first, the title story, was originally published in the New Yorker as “Found Paradise.” The story is about writing, about the yearning for the quiet country life, and, of course, about our problems in locating paradise and describing it once we’ve been there. It is also, along the way, a fine parody of various latter-day Thoreaus. Out on the farm, the storyteller keeps a journal (“forty-eight animals seen today before lunch, of which all but six were birds, most small and brownish”), and begins to “experience

What I was beginning to experience, I later learned, was “the being of being” that J. W. Spagnum, the prairie transcendentalist, describes as “the profound fullness of spirit that renders the heart immovable.” In The Wisdom of the Plains, he writes, “The first and highest paradise is our heavenly home and the second is the Garden of Eden, shown on the Chart of Time (inside front cover) as a sunny sky and a grove of trees. . .”

What he finds (not to spoil the surprise) is what one usually does find if one spends some time on a Minnesota farm during the winter. His “stories” (one paragraph each) begin to sound like Reader’s Digest condensed versions of E. B. White’s essays. And his experiences become equally simple: that hunger for myth and symbol evaporates.

In the old days of novel writing, my son’s birthday, on May 1st, would have made me think of the coincidence of revolution and spring, and the death-rebirth motif. This year it didn’t, and we had a good time. He received a sandbox, a tricycle, a toy farm, and a fifty-dollar savings bond. At end of day, I did not find myself brooding about my own sandbox experiences. I went to bed early.

To talk about it at all, as in rock criticism, is inherently paradoxical, as the flat, simple statements attempt to suggest: “Found Paradise. I said I would and by God I have. Here it is and it is just what I knew was here all along.”

The other story, the last in the book, is called Drowning 1954. It is, again, in part about time, about making one fatal slip and envisioning all of your life suddenly lost: “One misstep! A lie, perhaps, or disobedience to your mother. There were countless men . . . who stumbled and fell from the path -- one misstep! -- and were dragged down like drowning men into debauchery, unbelief, and utter damnation.”

His lie had to do with swimming; the protagonist hated his swim instructor and skipped classes, going instead to the WCCO radio studio in Minneapolis to watch “Good Neighbor Time.” Then years later, as the story ends, the narrator watches his own seven-year-old son learning to swim:

Every time I see him standing in the shallows, working up nerve to put his head under, I love him more. His eyes are closed tight, and his pale slender body is tense as a drawn bow, ready to spring up instantly should he start to drown. Then I feel it all over again, the way I used to feel. I also feel it when I see people like the imperial swimming instructor at the YMCA -- powerful people who delight in towering over some little twerp who is struggling and scared, and casting the terrible shadow of their just and perfect selves.

This is close to the voice we hear every week over the radio, and in that last sentence we hear as well some of the perfectionism that makes the show a success. Details are kept to a minimum (what do we really know about the inside of the “Chatterbox Cafe”?); the voice is personal, reflective; often it is strikingly moral, and equally often it suggests something of the “Wistful Vista” of Fibber McGee. Vulnerable himself, the narrator sees vulnerability everywhere -- in shy people, in all that is passing, growing up and growing older. He sees that we can do little to help each other out -- even our own defenseless children. Sometimes the best we can do is send messages over the airwaves. Or tell the stories.

Are the stories as good as the show? If you don’t like the show, will you like the stories anyway? Probably. Like the show, the stories are hit or miss, and if you like Keillor, or the man Keillor is in many of his stories (whether in print or on the air), you’ll appreciate even the misses, because even when the right word doesn’t quite come, or when the timing is just a shade off, the tone usually survives -- something lingers in the air, making us feel at home, comfortable, happy to be here. Found Paradise. And with bedtime always approaching, you may find one Saturday a story or message you need to pass along (listeners of the show make great evangelists). But I’ll let Garrison Keillor have the last word, and let his own review of the show stand for the book as well:

Occasionally it’s very good. And it’s the only show I hear that reminds me of the old Zenith. We are in the position of a man who lives in a town with no Chinese restaurants and has to make his own Moo Goo Gai Ding. It’s almost impossible to make it right, he doesn’t have a recipe, and Super Valu doesn’t stock the right herbs and spices, but every so often he pulls off a Ding that brings back memories of the Dings he used to know. For a man in the wrong place at the wrong time, that’s as good as it gets.


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